Visualized: A Global Risk Assessment of 2021 And Beyond
Risk is all around us. After the events of 2020, it’s not surprising that the level and variety of risks we face have become more pronounced than ever.
Every year, the World Economic Forum analyzes the top risks in the world in its Global Risks Report. Risks were identified based on 800+ responses of surveyed leaders across various levels of expertise, organizations, and regional distribution.
Which risks are top of mind in 2021?
The World’s Top Risks by Likelihood and Impact
According to WEF’s risk assessment methodology, all the global risks in 2021 fall into the following broad categories:
- 🔵 Economic
- 🟢 Environmental
- 🟠 Geopolitical
- 🔴 Societal
- 🟣 Technological
It goes without saying that infectious diseases have now become one of the top societal risks on both metrics of likelihood and impact.
That said, environmental risks continue to dominate the leaderboard, accounting for five of the top 10 risks by impact, especially when it comes to climate action failure.
Several countries are off-track in meeting emissions goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, while the pandemic has also delayed progress in the shift towards a carbon-neutral economy. Meanwhile, biodiversity loss is occurring at unprecedented rates.
|Rank||Top Risks by Likelihood||Top Risks by Impact|
|#1||🟢Extreme weather||🔴Infectious diseases|
|#2||🟢Climate action failure||🟢Climate action failure|
|#3||🟢Human environmental damage||🟠Weapons of mass destruction|
|#4||🔴Infectious diseases||🟢Biodiversity loss|
|#5||🟢Biodiversity loss||🟢Natural resource crises|
|#6||🟣Digital power concentration||🟢Human environmental damage|
|#7||🟣Digital inequality||🔴Livelihood crises|
|#8||🟠Interstate relations fracture||🟢Extreme weather|
|#9||🟣Cybersecurity failure||🔵Debt crises|
|#10||🔴Livelihood crises||🟣IT Infrastructure breakdown|
As for other risks, the prospect of weapons of mass destruction ranks in third place for potential impact. In the global arms race, a single misstep would trigger severe consequences on civil and political stability.
New Risks in 2021
While many of the risks included in the Global Risks Report 2021 are familiar to those who have read the editions of years past, there are a flurry of new entries to the list this year.
Here are some of the most interesting ones in the risk assessment, sorted by category:
COVID-19 has resulted in a myriad of knock-on societal risks, from youth disillusionment and mental health deterioration to livelihood crises. The first two risks in particular go hand-in-hand, as “pandemials” (youth aged 15-24) are staring down a turbulent future. This generation is more likely to report high distress from disrupted educational and economic prospects.
At the same time, as countries prepare for widespread immunization against COVID-19, another related societal risk is the backlash against science. The WEF identifies vaccines and immunization as subjects susceptible to disinformation and denial of scientific evidence.
As monetary stimulus was kicked into high gear to prop up markets and support many closed businesses and quarantined families, the economic outlook seems more fragile than ever. Debt-to-GDP ratios continue to rise across advanced economies—if GDP growth stagnates for too long, a potential debt crisis could see many businesses and major nations default on their debt.
With greater stress accumulating on a range of major industries such as travel and hospitality, the economy risks a build-up of “zombie” firms that drag down overall productivity. Despite this, market valuations and asset prices continue to rise, with equity markets rewarding investors betting on a swift recovery so far.
Last but not least, COVID-19 has raised the alert on various technological risks. Despite the accelerated shift towards remote work and digitalization of entire industries, the reality is that digital inequality leaves those with lower digital literacy behind—worsening existing inequalities.
Big Tech is also bloating even further, growing its digital power concentration. The market share some companies hold in their respective sectors, such as Amazon in online retail, threatens to erode the agency of other players.
Assessing the Top 10 Risks On the Horizon
Back in mid-2020, the WEF attempted to quantify the biggest risks over an 18-month period, with a prolonged economic recession emerging on top.
In this report’s risk assessment, global risks are further classified by how soon their resulting threats are expected to occur. Weapons of mass destruction remain the top risk, though on a much longer scale of up to 10 years in the future.
|#1||🟠Weapons of mass destruction||62.7||Long-term (5-10 years)|
|#2||🔴Infectious diseases||58||Short-term risks (0-2 years)|
|#3||🔴Livelihood crises||55.1||Short-term risks (0-2 years)|
|#4||🔵Asset bubble burst||53.3||Medium-term risks (3-5 years)|
|#5||🟣 IT infrastructure breakdown||53.3||Medium-term risks (3-5 years)|
|#6||🔵Price instability||52.9||Medium-term risks (3-5 years)|
|#7||🟢Extreme weather events||52.7||Short-term risks (0-2 years)|
|#8||🔵Commodity shocks||52.7||Medium-term risks (3-5 years)|
|#9||🔵Debt crises||52.3||Medium-term risks (3-5 years)|
|#10||🟠State collapse||51.8||Long-term (5-10 years)|
Through this perspective, COVID-19 (and its variants) remains high in the next two years as the world scrambles to return to normal.
It’s also clear that more economic risks are taking center stage, from an asset bubble burst to price instability that could have a profound effect over the next five years.
Animated Map: Visualizing Earth’s Seasons
This map visualizes Earth’s seasons, showing how our planet’s Arctic sea ice and vegetation changes throughout the year.
Animated Map: Visualizing Earth’s Seasons
Why does Earth have seasons?
Many people think the seasons are dictated by Earth’s proximity to the Sun, but this isn’t the case. It’s the Earth’s tilt, not its closeness to the Sun, that influences our seasons.
This animated map by Eleanor Lutz visualizes Earth’s seasons, showing how the temperature changes impact ice levels in the Arctic as well as vegetation more broadly. It also highlights the cloud cover and sunlight each hemisphere receives throughout the year, with each frame in the animation representing a month of time.
Why is Earth Tilted?
Unlike some of the planets that sit completely upright and rotate perpendicularly, Earth rotates on a 23.5-degree axis.
But why? A commonly accepted theory among the scientific community is the giant impact hypothesis. According to this theory, a celestial object called Theia collided with Earth many years ago, when the planet was still forming. This collision not only knocked Earth into its tilted position—some believe that the dust and debris from this impact ended up forming our moon.
Ever since, our planet has been rotating with a slight tilt (which itself is not fixed, as it “wobbles” in cycles), giving us our varying seasons throughout the year.
How Earth’s Tilt Influences our Seasons
As our planet orbits the Sun, it’s always leaning in the same direction. Because of its tilt, the different hemispheres receive varying amounts of sunlight at different times of the year.
In December, Earth is technically closer to the Sun than it is in June or July. However, because the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun during December, that part of the planet experiences winter during that time.
The graphic above by the Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) visualizes Earth’s orbit throughout the year, showing when each hemisphere receives the most direct sunlight (and thus, experiences summer).
The Climate Change Impact
While our seasons have always varied, it’s worth noting that climate change has impacted our seasons, and changed how much Arctic ice we lose each summer.
In the past, millions of miles of ice remained frozen throughout the summer months. In the 1980s, there were 3.8 million square miles of ice in July—that’s roughly the same size as Australia.
Over the years, Arctic ice cover has steadily declined. In July 2020, the ice cover was only 2.8 million square miles—a million less than the amount four decades ago.
Some scientists are predicting that we could lose our summer sea ice entirely by 2035, which would have a devastating impact on the Artic’s wildlife and the indigenous people who live there.
Ranked: Nuclear Power Production, by Country
Nuclear power accounted for 10% of global electricity generated in 2020. Here’s a look at the largest nuclear power producers.
Nuclear Power Production by Country
Nearly 450 reactors around the world supply various nations with nuclear power, combining for about 10% of the world’s electricity, or about 4% of the global energy mix.
But while some countries are turning to nuclear as a clean energy source, nuclear energy generation overall has seen a slowdown since its peak in the 1990s.
The above infographic breaks down nuclear electricity generation by country in 2020 using data from the Power Reactor Information System (PRIS).
Ranked: The Top 15 Countries for Nuclear Power
Just 15 countries account for more than 91% of global nuclear power production. Here’s how much energy these countries produced in 2020:
|Rank||Country||Number of Operating Reactors||Nuclear Electricity Supplied|
|#5||South Korea 🇰🇷||24||152,583||6.0%|
|Rest of the World 🌎||44||207,340||8.1%|
In the U.S., nuclear power produces over 50% of the country’s clean electricity. Additionally, 88 of the country’s 96 operating reactors in 2020 received approvals for a 20-year life extension.
China, the world’s second-largest nuclear power producer, is investing further in nuclear energy in a bid to achieve its climate goals. The plan, which includes building 150 new reactors by 2035, could cost as much as $440 billion.
On the other hand, European opinions on nuclear energy are mixed. Germany is the eighth-largest on the list but plans to shutter its last operating reactor in 2022 as part of its nuclear phase-out. France, meanwhile, plans to expand its nuclear capacity.
Which Countries Rely Most on Nuclear Energy?
Although total electricity generation is useful for a high-level global comparison, it’s important to remember that there are some smaller countries not featured above where nuclear is still an important part of the electricity mix.
Here’s a breakdown based on the share of nuclear energy in a country’s electricity mix:
|Rank||Country||Nuclear Share of Electricity Mix|
|#13||South Korea 🇰🇷||29.6%|
|#17||United States 🇺🇸||19.7%|
|#19||United Kingdom 🇬🇧||14.5%|
European countries dominate the leaderboard with 14 of the top 15 spots, including France, where nuclear power is the country’s largest source of electricity.
It’s interesting to note that only a few of these countries are top producers of nuclear in absolute terms. For example, in Slovakia, nuclear makes up 53.6% of the electricity mix—however, the country’s four reactors make up less than 1% of total global operating capacity.
On the flipside, the U.S. ranks 17th by share of nuclear power in its mix, despite producing 31% of global nuclear electricity in 2020. This discrepancy is largely due to size and population. European countries are much smaller and produce less electricity overall than larger countries like the U.S. and China.
The Future of Nuclear Power
The nuclear power landscape is constantly changing.
There were over 50 additional nuclear reactors under construction in 2020, and hundreds more are planned primarily in Asia.
As countries turn away from fossil fuels and embrace carbon-free energy sources, nuclear energy might see a resurgence in the global energy mix despite the phase-outs planned in several countries around the globe.
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